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Prehistoric Man, Lascaux

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Prehistoric Man

Near the town of Les Eyzies-de-Tayac is a series of prehistoric rock dwellings located downstream from the Lascaux cave.

The caves include some of the most significant archaeological finds of the Upper Paleolithic (from about 40,000 to 10,000 years ago) and Middle Paleolithic (200,000 to 40,000 years ago) periods; they are especially noted for their extensive wall drawings. Situated in the Vézère Valley (the location of some 150 archaeological sites) the Eyzies-de-Tayac caves are among a series of decorated grottoes in the area that were collectively designated a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1979.

Following the discovery of flint and bone splinters in the area in 1862, a series of excavations were undertaken by the French geologist Édouard Lartet and the English banker Henry Christy. Their work quickly established Les Eyzies-de-Tayac as the principal archaeological site for the Upper Paleolithic Period. Among their discoveries were the multicoloured animal drawings of the Font-de-Gaume cave and an incredible display of stalactites and stalagmites in the Grand Roc. A rock shelter at La Madeleine (the type site for the Magdalenian culture) yielded bone and antler tools. The cave of Le Moustier is the type site of the Mousterian industry, a tool culture known for its flake implements.

Cro-Magnon is the name of a rock shelter near Les Eyzies-de-Tayac, where several prehistoric skeletons were found in 1868. Sent to the site, the French geologist Louis Lartet began excavations in which he established the existence of five archaeological layers covered with ash. The age of the human remains found in the topmost layer (along with worked flint and the bones of animals of species now extinct) is Upper Paleolithic (c. 35,000-l0,000 years ago), but the attribution of these to a clearly defined Upper Paleolithic culture is less definite. Traditionally regarded as Aurignacian, since typically Aurignacian artifacts were found in the rock shelter, they could be more recent, and it has been suggested that they should be assigned to the Perigordian (a separate industry covering approximately the same time period as the Aurignacian), which would give an age of about 25,000 BC.

In Palentology, the term Perigordian industry is given to the tool tradition of prehistoric men in Upper Paleolithic Europe that followed the Mousterian industry, was contemporary in part with the Aurignacian, and was succeeded by the Solutrean. Perigordian tools included denticulate (toothed) tools of the type used earlier in the Mousterian tradition and stone knives with one sharp edge and one flat edge, much like modern metal knives. Other Upper Paleolithic tool types are also found in Perigordian culture, including scrapers, borers, burins (woodworking tools rather like chisels), and composite tools; bone implements are relatively uncommon.

The Perigordian has two main stages. The earlier stage, called Chatelperronian, is concentrated in the Périgord region of France but is believed to have originated in southwestern Asia; it is distinguished from contemporary stone tool culture complexes by the presence of curved-backed knives (knives sharpened both on the cutting edge and the back). The later stage is called Gravettian and is found in France, Italy, and Russia (there termed Eastern Gravettian). Gravettian people in the west hunted horses to the near exclusion of the reindeer and bison that other contemporaries hunted; in Russia Gravettians concentrated on mammoths. Both appear to have hunted communally, using stampedes and pitfalls to kill large numbers of animals at one time. Gravettians in the east used large mammoth bones as part of the building material for winter houses; mammoth fat was used to keep fires burning. Gravettian peoples made rather crude, fat 'Venus' urines, used red ochre as pigment, and fashioned jewelry out of shells, animal teeth, and ivory.

Archaeological finds in the Perigord, made another profound impact on the study of religion when in 1841 the discovery of prehistoric human artifacts and later finds gave clues to early man's magico-religious beliefs and practices. These discoveries, notably the cave paintings in the Dordogne, northern and eastern Spain, and elsewhere, gave scholars encouragement to work out the course of man's religious evolution from earliest times. Spectacular as prehistoric archaeology was proving to be, however, it could only yield fragments of a whole that is difficult to reconstruct. Even the famous cave paintings of Les Trois Frères, in the Dordogne, for example, which portray among other things a dancing human with antlers on his head and a stallion's tail decorating his rear, does not yield an unambiguous interpretation: is the dancing ure a sorcerer, a priest, or what? He very likely is a priest presenting himself as a divine ure connected with animal fertility and hunting rites--but this remains as only an educated guess. Hence, it became attractive to many scholars of religion to try to supplement ancient archaeological evidence with data drawn from contemporary primitive peoples--i.e., to interpret the prehistoric Stone Age through present-day stone age cultures. This procedure has several pitfalls--partly because contemporary 'primitives' are themselves the product of a long historical process and because their culture may have changed over the millennia in many and various ways.


A cave containing one of the most outstanding displays of prehistoric art yet discovered, located above the Vézère River valley near Montignac. It is a short distance upstream from another major cave-art site, Eyzies-de-Tayac. The two sites, with some two dozen other painted caves and 150 prehistoric settlements in the Vézère valley, were added to UNESCO's World Heritage List in 1979

Discovered by four teenage boys in September 1940, the cave was first studied by the French archaeologist Henri-Édouard-Prosper Breuil. It consists of a main cavern (some 66 feet [20 metres] wide and 16 feet [5 metres] high) and several steep galleries, all magnificently decorated with engraved, drawn, and painted ures. In all there are some 600 painted and drawn animals and symbols, along with nearly 1,500 engravings. The paintings were done on a light background in various shades of yellow, red, brown, and black. Among the most remarkable pictures are four huge aurochs (some 16 feet long), their horns portrayed in a 'twisted perspective'; a curious two-horned animal (misleadingly nicknamed the 'unicorn'), perhaps intended as a mythical creature; several red deer; bovids; great herds of horses; the heads and necks of several stags (3 feet [1 metre] tall), which appear to be swimming across a river; a series of six felines; two male bison; and a rare narrative composition.

The narrative scene has been variously interpreted but is probably based on shamanism. Its central ure is a bison that appears to have been speared in the abdomen; hanging, or spilling, from the animal near the spear is a lined, ovular sack that may represent entrails. In front of the bison's horns, and falling away from the animal, is a bird-headed man--the only human ure depicted in the cave--with an erect phallus. Just below, or beside, the man is a stick with a bird ornament as a finial. Another spear is near the man's feet, and off to the left a rhinoceros seems to be walking away from the scene.

Archaeologists have theorized that the cave served over a long period of time as a centre for the performance of hunting and magical rites--a theory supported by the depiction of a number of arrows and traps on or near the animals. Based on carbon-l4 dating, as well as the fossil record of the animal species portrayed, the Lascaux paintings have been dated to the late Aurignacian (Perigordian) period (c. 15,000-l3,000 BC). The cave, in perfect condition when first discovered, was opened to the public in 1948. Its floor level was quickly lowered to accommodate a walkway, destroying information of probable scientific value in the process--and the ensuing pedestrian traffic (as many as 100,000 annual visitors), as well as the use of artificial lighting, caused the once-vivid colours to fade and algae and bacteria to grow over some of the paintings. Thus, in 1963 the cave was again closed. In 1983 a partial replica, 'Lascaux II,' was opened nearby for public viewing; by the mid-l990s it registered some 300,000 visitors annually.


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